FYI: This review may contain spoilers.
While comic book characters have enjoyed unprecedented success in recent years there is one name that has been conspicuously absent. It could be that DC Comics and Warner Brothers were gun shy after the financial failure of the last attempt to resurrect the character. Or it simply might have been the age old problem that has plagued our favorite Kryptonian, what do you do with an essentially omnipotent being? As Umberto Eco put it in The Role of the Reader, “Superman, by definition the character whom nothing can impede, finds himself in the worrisome narrative situation of being a hero without an adversary and therefore without the possibility of any development.” On page or screen this is a creative nightmare. Finding a challenge equal to the man who has no equal, making an extraordinary character identifiable to ordinary audiences and all the while thrilling them with the limitlessness of his abilities is a serious problem. As Superman Returns showed, just making a movie about what is likely the world’s most recognizable superhero is no guarantee of box office success. Which made everyone wonder if Man of Steel would have what it takes to make Superman soar again?
Faced with the imminent destruction of Krypton, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer) make the decision to send their son to a habitable planet to preserve what remains of their civilization. Raised by farmers Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) he has been taught to conceal his true nature out of fear for how people would react to something they could not understand. Now a grown man as Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) he wanders his adopted planet keeping to himself, helping where he can, but always moving on so as to avoid drawing attention to himself. When an object is discovered under the Arctic Clark is finally given insight into his origins and is placed in the path of intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), whose journalistic curiosity compels her to find answers to these strange occurrences. But the world only becomes stranger with the appearance of General Zod (Michael Shannon), who was exiled for a rebellion on Krypton, hunting for a key, which would mean a second chance for Kryptonbut would result in the genocide of the human race. Torn between two lives and troubled by the lessons of two very different fathers, Clark must choose his own destiny and decide what kind of man he wants to be.
When asked why they had chosen Zack Snyder to direct Man of Steel, producer Christopher Nolan responded, “We were looking for a director who could bring a sense of optimism and idealism to this very American myth.” Which prompts me to repeat the question, why Zack Snyder? There is nothing in his body of work (300, Sucker Punch, The Watchmen) to suggest that he is suited to this material. If there is a common theme among his previous films it is the sliver of hope in the wake of overwhelming loss and destruction. This is undeniably a noble concept; however, the bleakness of such meditations does not translate well with the kind of hopefulness I would associate with the Superman mythology. Nor for that matter does the bleakness of Snyder’s characteristic visual aesthetic. This film could have been appropriately subtitled Fifty Shades of Grey given how unrelentingly grim the color palette is. I appreciate that in this effort to relaunch the character the filmmakers have decided to take a more serious tone; it is a move of which I am strongly in favor. However, the marriage of the tone and a visual style that is so desolate weighs heavily on the film, and fails to deliver that “sense of optimism and idealism” they hoped to achieve.
Apart from the fact the film is an aesthetic train wreck, the action sequences have all the grace of the proverbial ox in a china shop. There is one major action scene after another with little regard for story or character. This film is supposed to be a reboot to the series, a new attempt at an origin story; yet, I have no better idea who this Superman is than when I went into the theater. There was more character development in all six of the heroes in The Avengers than there was in the singular figure in this film. The story is set up in such a way that numerous flashbacks from Clark Kent’s past are interspersed amidst the action and contemporary events. Such occasions would have been the perfect opportunity to allow the audience to catch its breath and give the action some sense perspective within the character’s story arc, but instead these scenes are handled with no such carebut are treated merely as afterthoughts to move from one bombastic moment to the next. Not only are the action sequences overwhelming in number but they are also shot in a dizzying whirl of flying masses and crashing cityscapes so that you can never fully appreciate the images you are seeing. I could not help but walk away with the impression that all the elements were there for a good movie if it had been entrusted to a director whose vision was more favorable to the material.
For as much as a jumbled mess as I found the film to be, I was paradoxically glad that it has done so well at the box office because there were decisions made that I will be interested to see where it could take the series if it is given the chance to develop (a fact that has been assured by its tremendous financial success). After the now standard Bond movie opening to an action film featuring the destruction of Krypton, the story shifts to Kal/Clark as an adult. Instead of choosing to have an extended sequence at the beginning that follows his childhood, his growth is documented in relevant flashbacks throughout. It was a brilliant use of a storytelling device that sadly was not utilized to its potential, but I think it underscored the tension that exists in Superman’s dual identity to a greater extent than any previous cinematic appearance. While in Superman we see Clark Kent and Superman side by side, one isessentially mask for the other; the foppish persona he adopts is meant to protect his true self. But in Man of Steel there is more at work here. We don’t even glimpse the well-meaning Daily Planet reporter until the end of the film. Instead the struggle for identity we see is one between Clark Kent, son of Jonathan and Martha Kent, and Kal-El, son of Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van. He is the child of two worlds in a very literal sense. There are some very complex issues and implications about identity that have always been at play in Superman’s various incarnations, but when it comes to the big screen filmmakers have seemed to favor simplifying matters. Even though we did not get to see nearly enough of this dynamic in the film for my taste, I am intrigued about the direction this series might take.
I also could not help but appreciate the filmmakers’ priority of reasserting Superman as a “very American myth.” I do not say this out of nationalistic bias; although, that is possible, but out of desire that the inherent American-ness of the character not be lost and one that is particularly relevant to our cultural moment. In 2006’s Superman Returns, Perry White (played by Frank Langella) asks his reporters to find out if Superman still “believes in truth, justice, all that stuff,” quite blatantly leaving off that bit about the “American way.” Somewhere along the line the American identity of Superman went by the wayside. Perhaps it was deemed too old-fashionedor maybe it would make the character less appealing to a global audience, whatever the case may be that part of his identity ceased to be a point of focus. But the creators behind Man of Steel clearly have decided to take a different approach, and they aren’t even remotely subtle about it. Superman watches football, he’s a Royals fanand when asked if he would threaten American interest replies, “I was raised in Kansas, General; I’m as American as I can get.” In his essay, ‘What Makes Superman So Darned American,’ Gary Engels identifies the character’s immigrant origins as part of his universal and continued appeal, stating, “This uniquely American hero has two identities, one based on where he comes from in life’s journey, one on where he is going.” America is at its foundation an immigrant nation. Each successive of generation must assimilate an alien past into a new future. It is a nation with tremendous power that has to learn how to exercise its abilities with wisdom and restraint. This is why Superman, and especially his American identity, is such a potent symbol right now. Like the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese and many others before them, a new wave of immigrants is struggling to find a place in this nation. As new technologies develop the debate arises as to what we what can do and what we should do. What makes Superman such an admirable character is that he represents the best of what the human race is capable of. He can be anything and do anything, yet he chooses what is good and virtuous and right.
I haven’t the faintest idea how Henry Cavill is going to stack up against every other actor to play this role or what he is going to distinctly bring to the table. I’m not sure what the filmmakers are going to do with the very different approach to the character of Lois Lane that they seem to be taking. There are many lingering questions I have about the future of this mythology because among the various priorities this film had character development simply wasn’t one of them. But I am relieved that we won’t have to wait another seven years to find out.